commentary (2006-33)

Order the Metropolitan Drug Commission an ice-cold pint of logic, and put it on our tab

Dry by Default

by Matt Edens

Where does downtown stand with regards to demon rum? Favorable, it would seem, if the happy hour and late-night crowds at any of downtown’s growing number of watering holes are any indication. Off-premise consumption, to use the technical term, is a bit more problematic. Drinking certainly isn’t off-limits in downtown’s lofts; trust me on that one. No, the problem lies in getting your hands on the hooch in the first place. There’s no liquor store within the confines of the central business district. A couple of willing entrepreneurs are ready to invest their money and remedy the problem, but their plans for a new liquor store have so far been stymied by a single sentence in the city code.

“No retail liquor store,” according to the code, “shall be within five hundred (500) feet, as measured from property line to property line, of any church, school, park, recreational facility, hospital, mortuary or other similar public place.” Considering that downtown Knoxville is less than a half-mile across, only a little larger north to south, and densely studded with churches, the problem becomes readily apparent. Factor in that downtown also has a lovely little park at its center and a far larger one along it western edge, and the problem becomes well nigh insurmountable.

Factoring it out is the intention of a proposed city ordinance change that, by the time you read this, may or may not have passed on first reading (such changes require a second vote to become law). The change would, within the CBID only, remove parks from consideration, opening up much of downtown’s retail core to retail liquor sales (including the proposed site that first prompted the debate). But its passage seems far from certain at this point. Downtown dwellers have largely, and vocally, supported the change, but other groups have expressed opposition. The Metropolitan Drug Commission issued a statement chock full of The Metropolitan Drug Commission issued a statement chock full of dire statistics, and several KPD officers have individually expressed concerns over downtown’s homeless population (coincidentally, in marked contrast to the city’s clustering of homeless services, it’s illegal to open a liquor store within 1,000 feet of another liquor store….)

Attitudes about alcohol aside, in my opinion, the debate so far seems to have missed one point that has nothing to do with either teetotaling, moralizing or bitching about backward blue laws. The law, as currently written, is a one-size fits all approach to regulating alcohol sales. The distance requirements currently apply citywide, no matter the density of the underlying development. And, while five hundred feet isn’t very far in the wide expanses of suburban West Knoxville, it is often a block, or more, downtown.

Whether it’s big-picture planning and zoning codes or something as simple as the distance requirements in our liquor ordinance, low-density suburbia is the default setting of most of our regulatory environment, no matter how mundane. For instance, if you buy or rent a house in any of Knoxville’s inner-city neighborhoods, as soon as you move in you’ll get a mailer from the post office demanding you put a mailbox on a post, out by the curb. Never mind that your neighborhood has on-street parking and the letter carrier will still have to walk the route, the suburban default setting defeats common sense.

And alcohol, apparently, is no exception. In their statement, the Metropolitan Drug Commission kindly pointed out that there are at least six liquor stores within two miles of downtown and three within one mile (and, for those less familiar with Mechanicsville and Magnolia, they were even nice enough to list them by address). Then, after citing an assortment of statistics about the sale of alcohol, they concluded by tossing in a total non sequitur: “It would seem a grocery store downtown would be of greater benefit to downtown revitalization than a liquor store.”

It probably would, at that (although I wasn’t under the impression that a grocery or liquor store was an either/or proposition). Still, it’s nice to see that, while well outside their mandate, the Metropolitan Drug Commission supports the idea of downtown dwellers being able to walk to the grocery store. But what’s more interesting is the MDC’s implication that, if downtowners want to drink, they’ll have to drive.